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Problems With NC Medical Examiners’ Findings Raise Questions About Thousands Of Deaths

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(Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP/ CBS Local) — Across North Carolina, medical examiners fail to follow crucial investigative steps, raising questions about the accuracy of thousands of death rulings, a Charlotte Observer investigation found.

Widows can be cheated out of insurance money. Families may never learn why their loved ones died. Killers can go free.

Case in point: after a medical examiner concluded David Worley died in a Harnett County car wreck last July, a funeral home discovered what the examiner missed: four stab wounds in his back. His widow is now charged with killing him.

“People can get away with murder if the medical examiners don’t do the job,” said Worley’s mother, Ella Grant. “Their job is to check bodies from top to bottom. That did not happen.”

The Observer’s investigation, entailing the most comprehensive analysis of state death rulings ever conducted, found that examiners regularly close cases without following recommended practices. Among the findings:

—     Medical examiners fail to examine bodies in one of every nine cases, despite state rules that require them to view every corpse.

—     Nine times out of 10, medical examiners don’t visit death scenes, a step that national experts say is key to investigations.

—     Elderly deaths get little scrutiny. Some N.C. counties go years without performing autopsies on older victims.

—     Families often wait months for rulings, which delays insurance payments and increases emotional stress.

Medical examiners are called in to investigate when the stakes are highest: suspicious, violent, accidental and unattended deaths. Those account for about 10,000 of the roughly 75,000 deaths in North Carolina each year.

But the state doesn’t require examiners to get training and rarely disciplines them when they break the rules.

Unlike television crime dramas, where death investigators swarm the scene and take microscopic samples, North Carolina’s medical examiner system operates much the way it did 40 years ago, when the population was about half as large.

Still, the state gives medical examiners a big responsibility: determining whether suspicious deaths in their counties result from homicide, suicide, accidents or natural causes.

The average state medical examiner system spends $1.76 per capita on its death investigation system, according to a 2007 survey by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME).

Last year, North Carolina spent less than half that – about 84 cents per capita.

“You get what you pay for,” said DiMaio, a nationally recognized pathologist who heads the Texas Forensic Science Commission. ” . You’re operating on the cheap.”

Some states rely on trained, full-time death investigators to visit scenes and gather evidence.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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